South African Witches face obstacles in the public practice of magic

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[The following article is a joint project between The Wild Hunt and Damon Leff, a human rights activist, Witch, and editor-in-chief of Penton Independent Alternative Media. Leff is also the director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, and owns his own pottery studio called Mnrva Pottery. He is currently studying Law at the University of South Africa, and lives in the Wilderness, Western Cape, South Africa.]

SOUTH AFRICA — Michael Hughes, the unofficial face of the recent February 24 mass binding ritual against the 45th President of the U.S. Donald Trump, described it as a tool for political resistance against “the Devil.” In the wake of the numerous international headlines around the world, South African Witches were left wondering whether such public magical resistance against a sitting head of state will in any way influence, or reinforce their own government’s existing negative perception of Witches.

South African Witches live in a country that is still hostile to any notion of “witchcraft” as a valid spiritual pursuit. For most South Africans, including influential Traditional Healers and Traditional Leaders, Witchcraft is viewed as a wholly negative practice.

Proudly Pagan PFD KZN 2009

Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa 2009 [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Most forms of magic of this type remain taboo in communities around the country, and even beyond in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. This bias often finds expression in unexpected places, and the response by authorities to allegations of Witchcraft remain largely reactive.

In 2012, a leaked South African Police memorandum revealed that provincial commissioners had been instructed to appoint detectives in every province tasked with investigating alleged harmful occult-related crimes. In addition to investigating actual cult related activity, newly appointed detectives are now required to also investigate spiritual intimidation and astral coercion, curses intended to cause harm, and alleged offences relating to Witchcraft (identified as “black magic” by the SAPS).

To date, no practicing Witches have been charged with any of these crimes, but the existing underlying bias permeates virtually every aspect of civil life. Therefore, when the call to bind Trump went out internationally, South African Pagans had to not only consider the ethics of such spellwork, but also had to weigh the situation within the context of South African law.

Politically and ethically speaking, the reactions found in the South African Pagan community varied just as in any other community. The responses ranged from active support for political magical activism to criticism of both the use of magic to bring harm and the assumed common intention of the participants.

Pierre Doubell, a Reiki Master and the High Priest of a small Wiccan coven in Port Elizabeth believes “magic can be harmful if used in the incorrect way.” Doubell said, ” If the intent is to change someone’s free will or to intentionally bring harm, then that act is classed as being negative or harmful, as we are imposing our idea of what should be on others or the world at large.

“The proposed binding of President Trump by Witches, both in America and around the world, is very wrong. I believe it is attention-seeking, irresponsible and very dangerous.”

Doubell also expressed concern for the impact such a public banning would have on individual Witches around the world and specifically those in South Africa. He said, ” The world is a small village with social media and satellite coverage. What happens anywhere in the world can positively or negatively affect people in other countries quite easily.

“This very public binding spell by American Witches will negatively influence the world’s view on Witchcraft practitioners as a whole, definitely in South Africa too. Remember that people are still burned in this country because they are “witches.” Imagine what a hornets’ nest this will stir. I for one would not like to see the Witch trials returned to any country.”

Doubell believes it would be more effective and better overall for unhappy Americans to go through the “proper channels and have him impeached.”

Adre Burger, who describes herself as an empathic anarchist, thinks using defensive magic may be acceptable in certain circumstances only. “I think in this specific instance the binding was done to protect a nation. For the greater good? Maybe. I am sure this was the intention. If my children are in danger, I will use defensive magic.”

She also noted that binding spells are not aimed at harming anyone, but rather stopping him or her from harming others or themselves. However, with that said, she questioned whether everyone participating in the event was unified toward a common intent. “Even though certain magical people saw this binding as more of a ‘Unity Prayer’ – to protect the nation and country- there was no proof that all participants used the same spell and that everybody’s intention was the same.”

“The creator of the original spell written for this wants to stay anonymous, and another person posted it online and as per reports on BBC,” she explained. “There were different versions of this spell. Immediately that bring doubts to my mind. I am questioning the unity and therefore the intention as well.

“I have serious issues with the way it was handled.”

Christina Engela, a non-theistic Witch, writer and human rights activist, has absolutely no doubt as to the value of this event as a valid form of political activism. She completely supports the initiative, saying, “As Witches we are part of this world and we should step up in times of crisis. Trump has to be stopped.”

Engela like Burger discussed the importance of intent. “A binding is a tool, and the intent of the user determines the nature of the working,” explains Engela. “Working against a dangerous harmful force as represented by Trump is more than just necessary, it is a duty, an obligation. Trump is overtly attacking and undermining democratic structure as well as all systems protecting human rights for all groups, not just minorities.”

However, this alleged “duty or obligation” must be treated very differently by South African Pagans than by those living in the U.S. or other similar communities Witchcraft practice does not carry the same weight and implications for practitioners in any of these cultures. And this is an important point.

Traditional Healers huddle prepare to pray to the Ancestors at Pagan Feedom Day 2004 [Courtesy Photo]

Traditional Healers huddle prepare to pray to the Ancestors at Pagan Feedom Day 2004 [Courtesy Photo]

In some African nations, witchcraft is reportedly used publicly on a regular basis to influence government work or elections. In western parts of Africa, such as in countries like Nigeria or Kenya, there are bans and laws specifically speaking to this issue.

In November 2016, The Star, a Kenyan news outlet, reported that “Embu clergymen say wizards are set to make a killing in the polls, and [they] have pledged to excommunicate politicians who use witchcraft to win.” This demonstrates the very different dynamic between magical work, religion, and government in other nations. Witchcraft, whether part of indigenous religious practice or something else, is in direct opposition to the power structures of local Christian churches. And that creates friction within government structures.

In 2014, we reported on a story out of South Africa in which the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled members of the opposition party “witches” and accused them of practicing the Craft. This accusation had come shortly after members of his party had been accused of corruption.

The cultural relationship with magic or witchcraft is very deep in these countries. There are embedded fears, mostly a result of colonization as described best by Ghana Musician and Witch Azizaa in her most recent interviews.

There is also a very rich heritage of magical practice through indigenous spiritual beliefs and traditional religions. While the relationship between the people and Witchcraft varies from country to country, it is, as a whole, very different from that found in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.

For South African Pagans, this is their lived reality, and it colors whether or not they can or will participate in any international actions, whether it be a binding, a healing, or something else entirely.

In 2016, Tongaat Hulett Sugar Limited dismissed boiler panel operator Louis Mngomezulu, who had been accused of using Witchcraft to intimidate the company’s Human Resources manager Khanyo Nxele. In arbitration proceedings before the National Bargaining Council for the Sugar Manufacturing and Refining Industry, the sitting Commissioner confirmed that Mngomezulu’s dismissal was justified “due to his reprehensible behaviour in attempting to use a shared cultural belief system to intimidate a colleague.”

The Commissioner held:

That is unacceptable in any workplace and will most definitively break down a relationship of trust and cordiality that exists between an employer and an employee and between an employee and his colleagues. The act of witchcraft does not have to achieve its purpose […] for it to become an act of misconduct. […]The mere use of muti or traditional preparations to intimidate, scare or threaten another person is sufficient. The placement of the muti was an attempt to psychologically exploit [Ms Nxele] and create fear and panic in her, for herself and for her family and possessions. And it did cause her grief. This behaviour amounts to serious intimidation and cannot be tolerated in the workplace.” [1]

Although this 2016 arbitration finding will not directly form part of existing South African case law, it will hold persuasive influence in any future case with similar circumstances, and will only serve to bolster SAPS occult detectives in their investigations into allegations of harmful occult-related crimes. Intimidation, generally interpreted in common law as an unlawful threat of violence intended to coerce submission, is a statutory crime.

In terms of the provisions of the Intimidation Act, “a person who conducts him or herself in a manner or utters words which can be construed as being threatening to others is guilty of intimidation.”

(1) Any person who
a) without lawful reason and with intent to compel or induce any person or persons of a particular nature, class or kind or persons in general to do or to abstain from doing any act or to assume or to abandon a particular standpoint
(ii) In any manner threatens to kill, assault, injure or cause damage to any person or persons of a particular nature, class or kind, or
(b)  acts or conducts himself in such a manner or utters or publishes such words that it has or they have the effect, or that it might reasonably be expected that the natural and probable consequences thereof would be, that a person perceiving the act, conduct, utterance or publication
(iii) fears for his own safety or the safety of his property or the security of his livelihood, or for the safety of any other person or the safety of the property of any other person or the security of the livelihood of any person;
Shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding R40 000 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years. Or to both such a fine and such imprisonment. [2]

In 2016 the South African Law Reform Commission released a draft of the Prohibition of Harmful Practices associated with Witchcraft beliefs bill for public comment. In it, the commission argued for the definition of “harmful witchcraft” practices. It reads as follows:

“Harmful witchcraft’ means the intentional or purported use of non-natural or supernatural means (whether that involves the use of physical elements or not) to threaten, or to cause, (i) Death or injury to or disease or disability to any person; or (ii) Destruction or loss of or damage to property of any description; or (iii) Utilises belief and particular practices associated with harmful witchcraft to instil psychological distress or terror. “ [3]

It is an important point to note that South African legislators and courts continue to engage in genuine discussions on the practice and use of Witchcraft. While the 1980s may have seen formal occult investigations in the U.S. and U.K., conversations surrounding Witchcraft as a viable weapon are virtually non-existent within the American legal system. While it does happen on occasion, those cases are mostly anecdotal or brushed off as either silly or inconsequential. This alone demonstrates the powerful difference between the American and South African cultural relationship with the practice.

For South African Witches, the question still remains whether they would be contravening the law if they publicly curse another, whether it be a local or foreign leader? Similarly, would they be violating the law if they simply encourage others, within the country or outside, to perform an act of binding magic? According to the laws as they are currently written, it is very likely that they would.

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[1]  [National Sugar Refining and Allied Industries Union obo Mngomezulu v Tongaat Hulett Sugar Limited (Darnall) (case no. NBCS5-15, 15 June 2016)]  Source:
[2] Intimidation Act No. 72 of 1982 Source:
[3] Prohibition of Harmful Practices associated with witchcraft beliefs Bill. Source:

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